Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Patrons, Clients, and Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

Patrons, Clients, and Empire. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003


Newbury, Colin


The book seeks to present the concept of clientage as an explanation for how European rule continued for so long in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Particularly, this paradigm is used to answer the recurring question of how so few could rule so many without general revolt for so long. The main phases are European dependency followed by reversal of status between incoming administrators and indigenous leaders engaged in political dialogue, client rivalries between conservative patron-chiefs and urban party-patrons, leading at the end of the imperial period to either accommodation or prolonged struggles for control of central and regional government in new states.

There are certainly questions about the explanatory value of the concept of clientage which would have not been completely resolved. In an imperial hierarchy, not all governors or subordinate officials have acted as ''patrons' in the absence of subordinate social and political hierarchies. In some segmentary societies, society chiefs had to be invented, not co-opted. This book represents thus a concern for a better understanding of the politics of colonial overrule as exchange, argument, continuity, and transformation in a dialogue that could not be so easily explored from pre-independence sources.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The aim of this book is to illustrate how hierarchical leaders have long acted for political and material advantage, going beyond the specifics of imperial policies and resorting to older models of relationships between the rulers and ruled - as old as the Greeks and Romans. Thus, the argument for recognition of patrimonialism and clientage is consistent with a more 'dynamic' interpretation of 'traditional' societies confronted with external agencies. The interaction between European powers and their Asian counterparts represented more of a dialogue - not on equal terms and not from the same motives remains in consideration of the participation of both sides.

The study encompasses the Indian states, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Maritime Southeast Asia, Pacific islands, in the time period of the pre-colonial and post-colonial period.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The central theme here consists of traditional leadership under imperial rule . However, historians still has the problem of accounting for political structures in other territories under imperial over-rule. Presently, these political structures are still interpreted with simplistic assumptions about the transformation or preservation of chieftaincy through imported administrative skills in the face of alternative political elites.

Newbury thus utilized a patron-client model to explain the relationships within imperial hierarchies, because clientage is seen to be rooted in segmentary politics typical of many pre-colonial societies and continued within the structure of European over-rule. Secondly, and especially for the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century administrators overseas, advancement by patronage within a hierarchy was a familiar technique. Finally, there are continuities observed in the ways in which post-colonial leaders could organize and exercise power. Hence, this study affects our judgment on imperial administration for its failure or success in 'preparing' for the exigencies and responsibilities of devolved government within political cultures that could be influenced but not entirely restructured.

Newbury interprets the relationship between Britain and India as one of patron-client relations. Establishing a new order did not mean entirely removing active opposition or sullen tolerance existing between a subject nobility with its own traditions of authority and loyalty and incoming military or civilian officials with their own preconceptions of how indigenous society was run. Hence, the voluntary or involuntary hierarchy are expressed by Newsbury as a patron-client relationship with roots in the classical clientage established by Roman rule over the Hellenes and in North Africa, on the model of domestic bargains arranged between a protective superior and a steward for benefits in kind.

A second approach in the exercise of imperial power was closer to 'clientage' in its recognition that after the initial impact of European agencies - commercial, missionary, military and administrative - both 'traditional' leadership and subsequently an educated and emergent elite leadership, acted in symbiosis with the authority structure of the colonial state by 'collaboration' with administrative and representative institutions. After the Second World War, these local leaders contested for a monopoly of political power prior to decolonization.

The framework used consists of the concept of 'collaboration' between elites and imperial rulers, applying to both European settler societies in their formative stages and to the indigenous hierarchies of tropical territories. Ronald Robinson as the proponent of this model situated much of imperial government in Asia and Africa in pre-imperial structures and demoted the archetype of 'indirect rule' from its Nigerian pedestal. This idea of collaboration also complemented a literature which emphasized the elements of resistance in the colonial period.

The general argument made in this study is that there was no overall policy or practice governing British relations with those of indigenous hierarchies, though there frequently was a typology of personal relations and bargains struck between paramount and political officers, according to the opportunities for benefits sought by both sides.

Annotated by Michelle Djong